Transport Minister Suriya Jungrungreangkit has dispelled speculation surrounding the halting of the colossal southern land bridge initiative, comprehensively valued at a whopping 1 trillion baht. Although the project remains afoot, Mr. Jungrungreangkit emphasized the necessity for a meticulous examination before greenlighting its execution.
Previously, Wichai Sudsawat, a parliamentary representative for Chumphon from the United Thai Nation (UTN) Party, voiced worries about the possible discontinuation of the project and passionately exhorted the government to forge ahead. Asserting the initiative to be a brainchild of the previous administration and an integral component of UTN’s strategy to augment connectivity across various domains. He posited this project as pivotal to driving economic growth in the southern region of Thailand.
The southern land bridge venture, kick-started in 2021 by the Prayut-Chan-o-cha administration, envisioned augmenting Thailand’s economic activity, with its effects being distinctly noticeable beyond the conventional Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) project which spanned across eastern provinces like Chon Buri, Rayong, and Chachoengsao. The undertaking planned to forge a pathway connecting the Andaman Sea with the Gulf of Thailand, transforming Ranong and Chumphon provinces into a bustling transit epicenter.
The project is part of the southern corridor strategy, contributing to the prosperity of Chumphon, Ranong, Surat Thani, and Nakhon Si Thammarat provinces. Mr. Sudsawat’s appeal was a response to Mr. Jungrungreangkit’s concerns regarding excessive investment costs, environmental influence, and the cost-effectiveness of the project.
Later, Mr. Jungrungreangkit insisted that no orders were issued for the dismissal of the project. He reassured that the Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning (OTP) is currently meticulously scrutinizing every facet of the project. Reinstating that once the survey concludes, the project will advance in accordance with the traditional procedural hierarchy.
In September, he established a directive to be adhered to by all agencies functioning under the umbrella of the Transport Ministry. This directive urges these institutions to exhibit utmost care and prioritize quick resolution of issues profoundly affecting the common populace.
Development projects within the ministry are assigned priority based on their impact on the citizens, ensuring that the consideration of substantial financial implications of mega projects is a key element in their execution. State bodies are mandated to collaborate in the successful delivery of definitive results for these projects.
The OTP appointed a professional firm to undertake a comprehensive feasibility study for the project. They are tasked with conducting the mandatory environmental impact assessment (EIA), designing the construction, and performing detailed business development model analysis. Although these study procedures were initiated in March 2021, COVID-19’s onslaught lead to their inevitable prolongation. As per projections, these will wrap up by the next September, but preliminary findings are slated for discussion with cabinet members in the coming month.
As per Pongkawin Jungrungruangkit, a vital advisor to the minister, the EIA will likely be submitted for cabinet endorsement by the end of next year, allowing the bid invitation process to commence in mid-2025.
OTP director Panya Chupanich confirmed the ongoing feasibility study and EIA procedures. He mentioned that the southern land bridge project, worth an estimated 1 trillion baht, will be entirely financed through private investors. With the government’s involvement primarily limited to land expropriation, the project has already attracted the interest of three potential foreign investors.
To further turn the spotlight on the project, the ministry is organizing informational road shows in China, the United States, and Europe, amongst other international locations. The purpose is to gather global feedback from all sectors including, civil societies to encourage the feasibility study. Key project components include creating a deep-sea port at Laem Riw cape in Chumphon on the Gulf of Thailand side, and Laem Ao Ang cape in Ranong located on the Andaman coast with a lavish budget of over 636 billion baht.
Each port will have the capacity to handle around 20 million TEUs (Twenty-foot-Equivalent Units) of container throughput. The project also encompasses a motorway and a dual-track railway worth more than 223 billion baht for seamless connectivity between the couple of southern provinces, roughly 89.35 km apart. The Single Rail Transfer project estimated at over 141 billion baht aims to establish a ship-rail cargo network within the two provinces.
Despite its initial inclusion, construction of oil and gas pipelines along the motorway and the railway route got shelved as the cost to value analysis leaned towards discontinuation. Altogether, the venture will be executed in four stages spanning from 2025 to 2030 as per Mr. Panya’s estimates, highlighting that the land bridge project is potentially the next big thing in logistics and transport and offers an alternate shipping route as a workaround to the prevalent Strait of Malacca route for goods movement between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.
However, the project’s grand vision is not without its share of practical pushbacks. Chaichan Charoensuk, head of the Thai National Shippers’ Council (TNSC), while appreciating the project, voiced his apprehensions regarding its colossal financial implications. He stressed on a diligent feasibility study along with an in-depth scrutiny of the source of container demand and the consequent shipping lines.
Nonetheless, the project offers promising upsides like significantly reducing transit durations and ensuing cost savings, fostering connectivity between the EEC project, the Greater Mekong Subregion, southern China, ASEAN, and member countries of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectorial Technical and Economic Cooperation.
Despite looming concerns and uncertainties, some inherent features offer a silver lining. The much-anticipated project introduction promises to stir the sluggish shipping scene in Thailand, contrasting with its more prestigious counterparts in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. Furthermore, the twin ports at Ranong and Chumphon will be engineered using sophisticated “green” technologies, emphasizing pro-environmental practices.
Laying the groundwork for the creation of free economic territories, it aims to solicit investments for the development and upkeep of ports in Ranong and Chumphon. Interlinked with the development of Laem Chabang Port in Chon Buri and the EEC, the southern land bridge project is an ambitious attempt to transform the geo-economic landscape of Thailand.